Guy Webster’s red wooden barn, ringed with weeds and scattered gardening tools, has become a pilgrimage destination for motorcycle cognoscenti. Several years ago, Webster received a surprise visit from one of these connoisseurs, the daughter of MV Agusta founder Count Domenico Agusta. The countess, having heard fables of an incomparable Italian motorcycle collection in Southern California, traveled from Italy to Webster’s home in Ojai to see if there was any truth to these tales. After an exchange of pleasantries, Webster escorted her from his house, situated in a secluded area adjacent to an orange grove, down a short path to the barn. He then swung open the door and flipped on the lights, revealing dozens of sparkling small-displacement Italian motorcycles, including several machines that her late father had designed and built. She stepped inside for a better view, and standing under a sign that reads, “Parking for Italians only/All others will be towed,” the countess wept.
Emotions often run unchecked in the presence of Webster’s collection. Every other weekend from October through May, as many as 300 visitors from California and beyond flock to Webster’s barn to gawk, sigh, and shed an occasional tear over his 75-machine stable of Italian motorcycles built from 1950 to 1980. “When one of the top people in Italy who buys and restores these bikes looked at my collection, he said it’s the finest collection of Italian bikes in the world,” says the 63-year-old Webster. “They’re all correct and they’re all there.”
The curators of the Guggenheim’s The Art of the Motorcycle exhibit were sufficiently impressed with the collection to include five of Webster’s bikes in the show, which has been drawing record crowds to the museums since it opened at the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, in 1998. “His approach is that of a connoisseur,” says Charles Falco, cocurator of The Art of the Motorcycle. “If you’re the Metropolitan Museum in New York, you can have an incredibly broad collection of all periods and art. If you’re a smaller museum, you can try and do the same thing, but then you’re broadly collecting stuff of not good quality. A good curator of a smaller museum will focus on a smaller aspect to be the best in the world. I sensed that in Guy’s collection.”
He may possess the world’s premier collection of its kind, but Webster says that he did not amass it to find fame or fortune—even though several of the bikes are worth more than $20,000. While he enjoys showing his motorcycles to visitors, and he likes to sit in his barn and gaze at his machines while listening to music, Webster insists that, as possessions, the motorcycles might as well be paperweights. “I’m a Buddhist,” he explains. “I have no attachment. These could all go up tomorrow. It’s all about nonattachment.”
Although it is tempting to dismiss Webster’s claim as disingenuous if not delusional, it is consistent with the notion that a collector feels a greater passion for collecting than for his collection. In this same vein, Webster says that he took more pleasure in making his 1964 Moto Morini Corsarino SS perfect than he does in possessing or displaying the flawless red machine. When he obtained it, the Corsarino, known as the Little Pirate, was truly authentic, except for one detail that Webster had initially missed: His Little Pirate had a two-person seat, and the Corsarino rolled off the production line with a one-person racing seat. When he eventually discovered the inconsistency, Webster, a stickler for accuracy whom some might consider obsessive, was distraught. To him, the seat smacked of fraudulence and blemished his entire collection.
Last year, Webster remedied the situation. While attending the Motogiro d’Italia, the annual Italian summer event for vintage motorcycle owners and racers, Webster visited a swap meet in Rimini, where he spotted a black seat, subtly studded on its sides, sitting at a trader’s stand. Webster instantly knew what it was: an original, one-person, 1964 Corsarino seat. The game was on.
The owner wanted $100 for the seat. Webster, who was accompanied by a female friend, offered $50. He could easily have afforded the asking price, but why bring the chase to such a hasty conclusion? “For the girl, you can have the seat for free,” the owner replied jokingly. After informing the man that the flesh trade would not be considered, Webster asked, “Who else would want this seat but me?” The owner did. For nearly the entire day, Webster haggled relentlessly, but the seller would not budge. Finally, Webster paid $100 and hauled the seat around Italy for two weeks until his return to California.
This incident was preceded by similar quests. After a thief pilfered a bicycle pump that had been attached to one of his motorcycles, Webster flew to Italy to purchase an exact replica of the pump as a replacement. Ten years ago, Webster received a call from New Hampshire informing him of a 1957 MV Agusta Squalo that was stored in a basement—in four separate boxes. He traveled to New Hampshire, claimed the boxes, and spent two years restoring the motorcycle to its current glory.
The Squalo and every other motorcycle in Webster’s garage represent a chapter in Italy’s two-wheeled lore. Together they underscore the essence of each marque, illustrate the evolution of power and engine sizes, and demonstrate the influence of racing on Italian motorcycles. The pieces coalesce to create a collection that, like an exhibition arranged by a master curator, makes a complete and seamless statement. “There are art exhibitions where the curator couldn’t quite decide what story he wanted to tell, so he decided to tell three or four stories,” says Falco. “You can tell there isn’t a coherence of vision. Guy’s collection doesn’t convey that. There’s a coherence of vision. It’s very clear when you see it.”
Webster’s collection tells the story of a 30-year span of time that was flush with optimism and innovation and that emphasized form over function. The post–World War II Italian economic miracle showered bounties on Ducati, MV Agusta, Moto Guzzi, Laverda, and other motorcycle makers, providing them with the means to experiment with shapely fiberglass tanks and other aesthetic innovations. Because of the booming economy, there was no shortage of customers for the pricey motorcycles that they produced. “They could afford to buy motorcycles with a gas tank that was more expensive to fabricate, but also more beautiful,” says Falco. “Italians were less conservative. They were much more open to the designer’s flights of fancy, especially during that period.”
Webster, a former rock ’n’ roll photographer whose portfolio includes album covers for the Doors and the Rolling Stones, gained firsthand knowledge of the Italian mind-set in the early 1970s, when he moved to Florence, Italy. He lived next to a Moto Morini dealer, watching the 50cc machines conquer the spindly roads of Italy and the peppery tempers of its native drivers. Soon, Webster was in love.
Unlike the English and American motorcycle companies of that period, which designed motorcycles that were sturdy but bore an industrial appearance, their Italian counterparts imbued their machines with a unique style and grace. “Beautiful design is anthropomorphic: It has human qualities, with a heart, legs, and sinews,” says Webster. “Italians understood sex better than any other country. They put sex into their bikes.”
In his garage, Webster arranges the motorcycles by type and chronology, chiding himself after mistakenly placing one of his machines out of order. Even after he adjusts the lineup, a small gap still exists in the collection. To anyone else, the absence of a 1957 Ducati Marianna 100 would be negligible at worst, but to Webster, it is the equivalent of a Monet exhibition minus the lily pads.
The bike was designed by Fabio Taglioni, the legendary Ducati engineer known to the Ducatisti as “Dr. T.” Webster, who was friendly with Taglioni, has been hunting for the Marianna for the last 15 years. A collector in Santa Barbara will not relinquish his Marianna, and Webster has rejected several subpar models, including one machine that had a frame but no motor. He will not accept a bike that does not meet his criteria. “Nobody else will know the bike is missing here except me,” says Webster. “But it’s about finding the correct one.” It’s about maintaining the collection’s integrity—and the collector’s challenge.
1974 Ducati 750 SS
“The reason this is so important is because Ducati won the world championship with the 750. When they made 200 replicas, they were made by the race department. It’s not a factory bike made to look like the original. It had the Carilla rods and motor, the 40mm stock carb, the fiberglass tank which was illegal—all the good stuff. It was a real race bike. I put pipes on it and went racing. I like it as a street bike. It’s the ultimate café racer of the early ’70s. I bought it for $5,000 and now it’s worth $35,000. It’s the bike of the ’70s. I can’t ride the 750 now because it’s too valuable.”
1974 Laverda 750 SFC
“I first saw it in Italy in 1974. There was a Laverda dealer in Florence. I was staggered by its beauty. I thought I’d like to own it, but that I’d never have the money to do it with five kids in private school. It was in the Guggenheim tour for four years. It’s very loud and raucous. It’s a major collectible, worth $10,000 to $20,000.
“One day I pulled into the garage after a ride. I was near the wall, and I was revving it to clear the plugs. The bike started to shimmy and rattle, and it was pushing me against the wall. I had my leg up against the wall. I thought, ‘How will I get it off?’ If I tried to get out, I would have dropped the bike and it would have gone over. So I had to wait half an hour, screaming for my wife to get me out of there.”
1971 Ducati 450 Demo
“It’s only good for flat-out. It was raced by Speedy Gonzalez, Trevor Dunne, and Franco Farni. I’d rather use the original, but I’ll put on a modern front brake. It will have a Suzuki double-pull lightweight racing brake, which is allowed in racing. When it’s in the collection, it will have the original brake. It’s a [Bruno] Spaggiari bike, built with magnesium and aluminum alloy. It’s quite big for a 450 Desmo. It has magnesium bits, straight-cut gears, dry clutch—all the hot pieces. It’s very competitive in its class. It has stronger forks, and it’s all vintage.”